Let me guide you to Medellín – which is also a great gateway for a fantastic day trip to the mesmerizing town of Guatapé.
Arriving at the outskirts of Medellín, we heard a deafening thunder followed by a bolt of bright lightning – something had exploded.
Welcome to Medellín.
- Rain, Rain, Go Away
- Look Back in Anger
- City Tour of Medellín
- Day trip to Guatapé
- Practical Information
- Pinnable Pictures
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Quickly, we understood that we didn’t experience a violent attack in the former murder capital, but that there was a thunderstorm coming down on Colombia’s “city of spring”. What gave us a hint? For instance, the torrential rain that washed us toward our hotel. Oh man, I didn’t wanna get stuck at my – however very nice and comfortable – hotel room!
A couple of years ago during hurricane Mitch, I had to spend scary days in a hotel room in Tegucigalpa while outside people lost all their belongings including their lives. Since then, extreme weather conditions make me extremely nervous.
Look Back in Anger
Everybody knows Medellín’s rough, violent past. Many of these lost souls had to flee from their little piece of land in the countryside, threaten, scared, or chased away by one of the fighting forces, either the paramilitary right, the left-wing guerilla, or a drug cartel. Eventually, they got stranded in the city.
Like the lady that has been pushing all her belongings in a shopping cart across Plaza San Antonio for decades. She has lost her husband and kids to one of these groups. Now she is saving every peso she can afford. Thus, one day, she’ll hopefully be able to return to the place she fled from.
Learning From a Local
How do I know this? Juan told me.
Who Juan is? He’s the guy at Real Walking Tour Medellín who guides groups through downtown, pointing out special places and narrating the country’s, the city’s, and the people’s stories’n’history.
It’s only thanks to his energetic and entertaining attitude that after following him and his anecdotes for almost four hours, you’re not too depressed. Because when you get to the root of it, all of them are more or less atrocious and depressing.
Like one of the two Botero birds on Plaza San Antonio, one of Medellín’s most dismal places.
During a rock concert in 1995, someone placed a backpack with a bomb in Botero’s bird statue, and it killed 25 people including a pregnant woman and a 7 years old girl.
To this date, nobody knows officially which group is responsible for this barbaric act.
It was the very Fernando Botero who forbid the mayor of Medellin to clean the ruins of his work. Now there is a plaque with the victims’ names. Botero donated a second bird that symbolizes peace and hope for the new Medellín.
By the way, you’ll find a copy of this chubby bird in another city that needs a huge symbol of peace, namely Hiroshima.
Medellín is the way I was afraid Bogotá would be. It’s dirty, aggressive, and lost with many poor, homeless people around and groups of pathetic prostitutes lingering around churches. Godforsaken places – called Parques, definitely not being parks – full of sketchy people.
City Tour of Medellín
There are two main highlights in Medellín not to be missed. For one, there’s the Museo de Antioquia – housing i. a. a vast collection of Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures – as well as the adjacent Parque Botero with many of his voluptuous statues.
While a visit to the square is, obviously, free of charge, to visit the Museum, you need to buy a ticket, but it’s worth every peso.
Museo de Antioquia
You not only get to see their permanent collection that includes many huge, fantastic Boteros.
There are also paintings and sculptures the master donated from his private collection including works by Wilfredo Lam, Frank Stella, Alex Katz, and many more.
There are also multiple temporary exhibitions – each and everyone just sublime.
The one that impressed me most is by Colombian photographer Erika Diettes: As a reference to the suffering of her people, she created at the Museo de Antioquia her Relicarios.
From 2011 to 2015, the artist visited families all over Colombia who are mourning their disappeared loved ones. She listened to their stories and got a ‘relict’ that once belonged to the victims. Some relatives even travelled from secluded places just to hand Diettes the treasured objects. Sealing these ‘tokens’ individually in cubes of rubber terpolymer, Erika Diettes arranged these ‘gravestones’ into a graveyard of remembrance.
Walking through this cemetery, you are looking at random pieces – and they are telling you a story; a very sad one.
However, this exhibition was temporary – check their very informative website to see what’s on right now and plan your visit accordingly.
Part of the permanent collection is also a room for the children and the childish: You can put on a uniform and incarnate Botero’s painting Pedrito which shows the artist’s son who tragically passed away at the age of four;
why does everything have to have a depressing twist to it in this city?!
Museo de Antioquia
Carrera 52 # 52-43
Phone: + 57 – 4 – 251 36 36
The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a. m. to 5:30 p. m. and Sunday only till 4:30 p. m.
Guided Tour of Medellín
The other must-do activity should be a guided tour by Real City Tours where local guides tell you a lot about what’s going on behind closed doors.
Although Medellín is developing and even was awarded for its progress, the vibe in the city center is not as relaxed as in Bogotá.
So I honestly recommend this tour since you’ll get a whole different and much more complete perspective on Medellín than walking around by yourself.
Day trip to Guatapé
One thing you definitely shouldn’t miss is a day trip to Guatapé. It’s famous for the breathtaking views from a 200-meter high rock – cleverly called La Piedra -as well as for the town of Guatapé with its colorfully elaborated facades.
Since due to the unpredictable weather it was difficult to plan a day out, I thought a touristy group trip would be the best option. And it actually was. Being the only Europeans on a busload of mostly Latinos, we visited El Templo Roca where the whole town got ready for Palm Sunday.
Going on an Organized Tour
For US$ 28 per person including refreshments it was worth every cent, especially since we got to see far more places than we had seen going by ourselves.
Therefore I’d recommend it even if the weather allows an individually organized trip.
We took a boat ride on Lago Guatapé where a lovely Colombian family shared a laugh and their aguardiente from a tetra pack with us while we were maneuvering around the remains of Pablo Escobar’s former mansion.
The main reason for doing this tour was the panoramic views from La Piedra.
After climbing 750 steps, you have a great view of the picturesque composition of numberless islands. I’m sorry, guys, I took my pictures when there were dark grey clouds and shitty light so they look nothing like the ones I saw on the internet.
Please be so kind as to google them from others if you want pretty. Or look at mine if you go for a rather melancholic version.
The whole trip is nice and interesting, but also a bit bizarre since you are visiting places that technically do not exist anymore. They were – at least partly – reconstructed…
I don’t know, it deems a bit Disney World-ish, but anyway, here are the places we go to see:
El Nuevo Peñol and El Templo Roca
To transform the reservoir of Guatapé into a large catchment lake certainly was a very ambitious project. By filling it up, also the old town of El Peñol was completely flooded and eventually reconstructed 1.5 miles west.
Only that architecturally and sociologically, it has very little to do with its predecessor.
The most prominent landmark here is the church El Templo Roca, a house of worship hewn in stone.
Parque Temático Viejo Peñol
Parque Temático – like I said: a little bit of Disney World.
Founded in 1714, this municipality used to live from agriculture, but slowly changed to tourism and river fishing. Until the late 1970s, it was simply washed away.
What you see today, is a small replica of the vanished town. The Nuevo Peñol looks nothing like this and lost all the colonial charm.
Lago de Guatapé
So the whole tour includes also a boat ride on the Lago Guatapé. Today, wealthy Colombians have some amazing holiday homes around the lake – and so did Mr. Pablo Escobar.
You can spot the remains of his former mansion from the cruise.
El Peñón de Guatapé aka Stone of El Peñol
The main reason for doing this tour was the view from La Piedra, the Rock. Some call it El Peñón de Guatapé – that would be the people of Guatapé – others call it Stone of El Peñol; guess where those are from.
After climbing about 700 steps – the figures differ and I did not count while climbing – you have a great view of the picturesque composition of numberless islands.
On the one hand, with the construction of the dam on Lago Guatapé, the region became one of the country’s most important electric production centers. At the same time, they nourish and cherish the colonial and artistic appearance of towns to make them attractive to tourists; which works pretty well.
Guatapé was founded in 1811 by Don Francisco Giraldo y Jimenez and declared a municipality in 1867.
Since the early twentieth century, the sockets, the zócalos, show scenes related to the town’s history.
Some are just adorned with beautiful decorations like flowers, market scenes, or the typical chicken buses. But all these images have one thing in common: They are fantastically painted in bold colors.
How to Get There
However, the Olaya Herrera City Airport serves national destinations by only three airlines. The busier José María Córdova Airport in Rionegro is about 40 kilometers southeast of Medellín. You can easily get there by a colectivo, a shared cab, for less than 20,000 pesos. These cabs are leaving from a designated spot where you have to get by regular cab.
A regular cab charges about 80,000 pesos for a ride to or from the airport.
An alternative might be the airport bus that sets you back around 10,000 pesos, however, Sundays and in the early morning or late at night, this might not be a valid option.
Normally, the ride takes about an hour. Anyway, on such a long route, much can happen, so I would calculate at least 90 minutes and also make sure to be at the airport at least two hours before national departures and three before international.
We flew from Medellín to Cartagena and since I am me, we were there far too early. But it’s like they say: The early bird catches the
Coming to Medellín from Salento, we took a direct bus which costs a bit more than the local buses, but is much faster and especially with the luggage more comfortable than venturing via Armenia or Pereira.
Mind you, there are two long-distance bus terminals in Medellín: Terminal Sur and Terminal Norte.
Buses from Terminal Sur, which is located next to the Olaya Herrera Airport, are going to destinations south of Medellín whereas coaches leaving from Terminal Norte are going north and east of Medellín.
There are actually 54 ticket windows selling tickets for many different bus companies that provide service to over 120 destinations alone in Colombia.
If you want to do the day trip to Guatapé by public bus, you also have to leave from the Terminal Norte. Going by Sotrasanvicente, the first bus leaves Medellín at 6 a. m. and the last one comes from Guatapé at 7 p. m. However, adding all the extra costs like going to the bus terminal, buying lunch, paying entrance fees, etc., it’s actually hardly cheaper than an organized tour.
I’m an avid solo-travelling woman. Since solo travel doesn’t equal solitude, I love to join organized tours here and there. They allow me to meet fellow travellers – for just a short moment or a lifelong friendship.
Therefore, here are some great ideas of what to do during your stay in Medellín and how to do it in a fun, easy, and most of all safe way*:
How to Get Around
Apart from a comprehensive local bus system, Medellín is Colombia’s only city that has a monorail system. This makes travelling even to remote parts of the city really easy and very cheap.
Getting from the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* to the city center, we took the metro at the stop Estadio and got off three stops further at San Antonio – quick, safe, and easy peasy.
Obviously, you can always hail a cab. They are very reasonably priced – and metered, so no haggling here.
Besides the ‘traditional’ yellow cabs there are now also green cabs which run electrically.
Best Place to Sleep
We stayed in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of San Joaquin – not on purpose but because the hotel sounded great – and it was. However, the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* is not located in the center but three subway stops further west. It’s only one block from Carrera 70, a very lively street packed with stores, restaurants, and bars.
The hotel has nice, very modern rooms as well as a rooftop sauna which is a great treat after a long day exploring. Also, booking the tour to Guatapé with them was far cheaper than what you find on the internet.
Also, an opulent breakfast served in a very pleasant setting is included.
In case you cannot book a room at the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin*, here are some good alternatives*:
Best Place to Eat
We were so lucky that the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* was only two blocks from the fantastic organic grocery store Salud Pan that every day also offers five great menu options including vegetarian food.
We got soup, a main course, dessert, and a drink at an incredible 5 to 6 US$, depending, obviously, on your choice of the main course.
Circular 4ta No. 70 – 84
Phone: + 57 – 4 – 411 69 35
Medellín and Guatapé were, obviously, only two of many beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia. So to read about the others, go to the main post and take your pick! There you’ll also find valuable general information that will make your trip smoother.
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Note: I’m completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in November 2022.
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